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We shouldn't dismiss free school meals for all children so easily

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Recently, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Labour would offer, if elected, free school meals to all primary school aged children, funded by adding VAT to private school fees. Judging by the reaction to the announcement, you’d think he announced that he would feed private school children to their state school counterparts.

The proposal was made before this week’s announcement of a snap general election. This puts an even bigger focus on the proposal; it's an indicator of what Labour would actually do. This prompted me to look again at the outraged response to a pretty inoffensive idea.

Education policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum

I think a lot of the negative responses to the policy, certainly in the education-policy-wonk-and-uk-journalist-twitter circles, represent a strand of the ‘education-as-increasingly-esoteric-policy-area’ problem. The reason this policy gained so much traction, other than the fact that Corbyn said it (and boy do people on the internet love talking about Corbyn!!), is because it is about much more than education. Taking this as a strictly Education Policy Proposal is too narrow. As with many education issues, it does not exist in a vacuum.

At its core, this boils down to what kind of welfare we want. The argument for means testing benefits is targeting money towards those that actually need it rather than those who don’t. You wouldn’t give Job Seeker's Allowance to a CEO, and so on. But there is also an opposing argument, whether you agree with it or not, which says that means tested benefits are in place because we live in a society that takes pride in deciding who is and who is not the ‘deserving’ poor.

Means testing is not, in my mind, the unequivocal ‘correct’ approach to all benefits. Free school meals as a universal benefit would mean that, much like the health service and state pensions, we’ve decided children not going hungry at school is something we’re happy to ensure doesn’t happen, full stop, even if it means providing it for those whose families can afford it. Even universal basic income, the pinnacle of the ‘sure, in an ideal world we’d allll be socialists but this is the real world, commie’ policies, is gaining some traction(£). I don’t think reconsidering free school meals, when research suggests the current means tested threshold doesn’t actually accurately capture poverty, is that ridiculous.

Missing the point

So, this is about more than just education policy. And that is why when I saw the ‘well actually how will we measure disadvantaged pupil data without a free school meal indicator’ and ‘doesn’t Corbyn know that catering companies will get money out of this’ takes, I can’t help but think they miss the point. Is that really the issue here? This isn’t ‘should we use interactive whiteboards?’. The stakes are a little bigger.

People were even questioning the thoroughness and integrity of existing data on whether feeding children leads to a significant enough impact on attainment. Honestly right, I love evidence based policy as much as the next guy. Spending lots of money on something that doesn’t work is bad, I get it. But are we genuinely saying we need more proof that children going hungry=bad/feeding children=good?

What if, just for arguments sake, the education benefits came out as 0.00001% better GCSE attainment on average per student. Wouldn’t the improved quality of life for that child still be better? You might think I’m being melodramatic about ‘children going hungry’ (“they won’t starve! Their parents will still pay for meals or packed lunches”). But there are other implications. What about the nutritional benefit of school lunches over packed lunches? And what about just removing an element of stigma from their life?

The stigma of free school meals

I didn’t have free school meals as a kid and I don’t want to appropriate an experience I didn’t have. But I’ve read a fair number of reactions to this story that talk about the stigma of being on free school meals. I think it’s, at best, wilful ignorance to pretend there is not stigma in class and wealth gaps, or that kids won’t bully other kids over basically anything - let alone wealth - , or that kids who are bullied about it won’t really internalise that stuff.

I’ve seen the counter-arguments. Cashless systems and tact mean that it’s not publicised who is and isn’t in receipt of FSM, therefore no more stigma! Problem solved! But if people who actually were on FSM (and people currently working in schools) are saying that the stigma really does exist despite these things, our instinct should be to listen to them and not insist the problem has gone away.

The cost

Another element of the response seems to be hand wringing over the financial efficacy of the policy. Again, come on wonks, there’s bigger picture stuff going on here but I get it, technocracy is kind of your thing. The objection over cost, that I’ve seen, falls into one of two (or both) camps:

  1. The money raised could be better spent on other important issues in education
  2. Raising private school fees by adding VAT will drive some people out of being able to afford private school, which is not fair on those who can only just afford private school and affects the accuracy of the cost forecast

I sort of see the merit in the first point, insofar as there are a lot of things that need urgent attention in the Edusphere™. Budgets are consistently top of school leaders’ concerns, so extra funding could go a long way towards a myriad of things. And hey, we’ll probably never all agree on what money should be spent where. No one wants to fund teacher recruitment at the expense of mental health support; both are really important! But this is one way to fund one policy (see above for how hard you should have to be convinced that Food For Kids Is Good). We can discuss more ways of funding solutions to these other very important problems. Hell, we should demand it. It speaks to a depressingly low expectation that we think only one of these problems should be solved and it’s for us to argue about which.

And, regarding point two…

Pro-means testing but anti-tax for private school fees is…not a good look

The argument for means testing seems to be that some believe it captures those who need the help. Therefore, if you’re above that threshold even slightly, you must not need the help enough to qualify. To then wring your hands that people who send their kids to private school will struggle because of the VAT addition to their fees means you have an interesting perception of who you think deserves the help. No to those just above the threshold, but yes to those whose definition of struggling still involves private schooling.

If you can convince me that parents who send their children to private school shouldn’t have to deal with the VAT cost, but the children of parents just above the threshold for current FSM don’t deserve free meals, fair enough. But honestly I think that’s a bit mad. And the ‘forcing more into state schools’ argument is a purely hypothetical point. It's an unrealistic demand to expect this announcement to include a forecast of how that will affect the cost model three years before the policy could possibly be implemented.

I don’t really know how to sum up. I never thought there’d be such a big debate about whether feeding children is good but here we are. Policy announcements should be scrutinised. For the most part, I think few policies are totally black and white, good or bad ideas; nuance is usually needed. But however much I read the arguments against it I still come back to the fact that arguing against feeding children is an odd place to end up.

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